Apr 04, 2012 | Comments 29
Among those who are historically Reformed, evangelical, and confessional, the marks of the church are understood as three:
- The preaching of the Word
- The right administration of the sacraments; and
- The exercise of discipline.
While the Westminster Confession of Faith does not (unlike the Belgic Confession, art. 29) expressly term church discipline a “third mark” of the church, it nevertheless devotes an entire chapter to “Church Censures.” There it speaks of such censures as
“necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren, for deterring of others from the like offences, for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honour of Christ, and the holy profession of the Gospel, and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the Church, if they should suffer His covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders” (Westminster Confession of Faith, XXX.3).
This confessional emphasis upon the “necessity” of church discipline is clearly reflected in the ARP Book of Discipline. It recognizes, first of all, that church discipline is necessary for the service of the Church in the world:
“Under the rule of Christ expressed through the Church, discipline is that submission that frees the Christian for more effective service. Such service by the Church in the world demands a disciplined individual and corporate life. Each Christian is incorporated into the disciplined community and is responsible under its government for the total ministry of the body as the body is responsible for each individual and group in the Church” (Book of Discipline, I.1).
“The exercise of discipline is made necessary by the need more fully to reconcile Christian individuals or groups to God and one another, to prevent mercy from becoming a soft and finally cruel indulgence, and to control those whose words and actions may seriously hinder the witness of the whole body of Christ” (Book of Discipline, I.3).
In other words, church discipline is not an optional exercise for the church, and here we must ask how long a body that will not discipline its own members can continue to call itself an historic and Reformed church?
The question that was before Second Presbytery at its March meeting was whether the action by Dr. Richard Taylor, an elder in the Greenville Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (GARPC) and a member of the Erskine Board of Trustees (EBOT), in suing the ARP Church in civil court, constituted a violation of his ordination vows. Five members of Second Presbytery had filed “charges” with the session of the GARPC against Dr. Taylor.
As the readers of ARPTalk are aware, this matter involves the civil suit brought by Erskine Trustees Dr. Taylor, Dr. Parker Young, and Mr. David Chesnut after the 2010 “Snow” Synod. In First Presbytery, after the session of the Pinecrest ARP Church refused to act with regard to Dr. Parker Young, First Presbytery voted to “assume original jurisdiction” of the matter (meaning that Dr. Young was answerable directly to First Presbytery in this matter).
In response to the actions of First Presbytery, Dr. Young fled the jurisdiction of First Presbytery by renouncing his vows of membership in the Pinecrest ARP Church. This means that he asked the session of the Pinecrest ARP Church to remove his name from the membership roll. In effect, by doing this, Dr. Young settled the question. Since First Presbytery had voted to assume jurisdiction of the matter and Dr. Young removed himself from the bounds of First Presbytery’s jurisdiction, the matter was settled in First Presbytery. Nevertheless, in First Presbytery the action of an elder in suing his own church in civil court is viewed as behavior calling for a process of church discipline.
The following are the vows that both elders and ministers take in the ARP Church:
- Do you believe in one God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and do you confess anew the Lord Jesus Christ as your Saviour and Lord, and acknowledge Him Head over all things for the Church, which is His Body?
- Do you reaffirm your belief in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the Word of the living God, the only perfect rule of faith and practice, to which nothing is to be added and from which nothing is to be taken at any time or upon any pretext?
- Do you accept the doctrines of this Church, contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, as founded on the Word of God and as the expression of your own faith and do you resolve to adhere thereto?
- Do you accept the government, discipline, and worship of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church?
- Do you accept the office of ruling elder (deacon) in this congregation; and do you promise to perform faithfully all the duties of the office; and do you promise to endeavor by the grace of God to live your life in Christian witness before the church and in the world?
- Do you promise to submit in the spirit of love to the authority of the session and to the higher courts of the Church?
- Do you promise in all things to promote the unity, peace, purity, and prosperity of the church?”
(Form of Government, pp. 202-203)
The question that was put before the session of the GARPC was this: “Was Dr. Taylor’s action in suing the ARP Church in civil court a violation of his oath as an elder, particularly, was his action a violation of question 6: “Do you promise to submit in the spirit of love to the authority of the session and to the higher courts of the Church?” Quite obviously, Dr. Taylor rejected the ruling of General Synod at the “Snow Synod” and joined with others in suing the ARP Church in civil court. Was that action a violation of an elder’s vows?
Though the responses of the session of the GARPC to those who brought charges against Dr. Taylor are somewhat tedious and convoluted and overreaching at points, the basic arguments are as follows. One, since Dr. Taylor sincerely believed that as an EBOT trustee he was doing the right thing when he filed suit against the ARP Church in civil court (“That Dr. Taylor, as a trustee, truly believed that the action taken by the General Synod with respect to the attempted removal of certain trustees would be detrimental to the welfare of Erskine College and Seminary, and also believed that no other options were available to him and the other plaintiffs”), then his action superseded the ruling of the highest court of the ARP Church and the vows he had taken as an elder in the ARP Church.
Well, are we now to assume that we have a higher vow for elders and ministers – THE VOW OF SINCERITY? Also, are we also to assume that one’s loyalty to an agency board that General Synod has appointed one to serve on in behalf of and for the sake of the General Synod is a greater loyalty than one’s loyalty to the General Synod itself?
Two, the Session argued that Dr. Taylor’s actions were vindicated by the General Synod’s action in June of 2010 renouncing its effort to replace the Erskine Board of Trustees (“That the terms of the settlement overwhelmingly approved by the General Synod at the June 2010 meeting are almost identical to the relief sought by Dr. Taylor and the other plaintiffs in their action”). The argument here seems to be that since the “Compromise” of the 2010 June meeting of the General Synod resulted in a return to the status quo, and, since the legal actions by Dr. Taylor and others were dropped, then “no foul” took place with regard to vows. However, in the negotiations that took place, the plaintiffs attempted to extract from General Synod’s representatives a statement that would have provided immunity from ecclesiastical discipline for those ARP elders who had raised their hand to sue their church in civil court. Of course, such a concession could not be given.
Three, the Session argued that the dismissal of charges serves to promote the unity, peace, purity, and prosperity of the church (“That the matter has been settled between the parties to the litigation and further proceedings would not promote, but would instead hinder, the ‘unity, peace, purity and prosperity of the church’ as provided in the Form of Government.”). This is an evasion of the issue. Obviously, there is a question that is left unanswered, is there not? Is suing one’s church in civil court a violation of an elder’s vows?
This must be a particularly touchy matter for the session of the GARPC. The four ministers and one elder who brought charges against Dr. Taylor were not informed of the process of the session’s action or invited to be present or to present their case before the GARPC’s session. Then, when Second Presbytery met, the session of the GARPC circularized the presbytery with a 10-plus-page argument for their case before the matter even came before the presbytery, which is generally looked on as a violation of our procedures because it is an imposition on the court of arguments before the case is even taken up.
And this must also be a particularly touchy issue for Second Presbytery. These same men who brought charges against Dr. Taylor were not allowed to present their case before Second Presbytery either. Second Presbytery simply refused to hear the case without explanation.
This matter has now become a “Complaint” (something like an appeal) before the General Synod. This “Complaint” is signed by four ministers and two elders in Second Presbytery.
There are two questions looming before the 2012 General Synod:
- Is the action of an elder in suing his church in civil court a violation of the vows of an elder? and
- Does SINCERITY trump the vows of an elder?
I wonder if General Synod, unlike Second Presbytery, is willing to give a fair hearing to the Complaint that is before it. I wonder if General Synod is willing to give straight answers to the questions that are raised by the Complaint.
These are my thoughts,
Charles W. Wilson
Filed Under: Newsletter